Even if you’re not married to a theater major and knee-deep in old plays at any given moment, you’ve probably heard about the famous “curse of the Scottish play.” And if you haven’t, well, congratulations, you uncultured weirdo, you’re about to learn something fun about Shakespeare.

The “Scottish curse” is thus: saying the word “Macbeth” aloud in a theater, literally any theater, outside of the actual performance of Macbeth, will bring down all manner of crap and chaos, up to and including a riot. Lights have burned out, touring companies have disbanded, people have gotten hurt, people have died – and, one time, Charlton Heston had his balls set on fire.

And that’s to say nothing about poor Ian McKellen.

All because William Shakespeare pissed off a bunch of witches 400 years ago.

You see, Macbeth was written and first performed in 1606, when accusations and/or the actual practice of witchcraft, and the fear/hatred of the same, were very much en vogue. (For reference, America’s own Salem Witch Trials wouldn’t happen for close to another century.) The newly-throned King James I was especially keen on literal witch hunts, blaming dark magicks for his mother’s death. Dude even wrote a book about how he was going to kill them all, like some demented Pokémon trainer.

Reportedly, Shakespeare borrowed actual incantations from actual witches to make his “weyward” Sisters that much scarier. Maybe you’ve noticed that the witches in Macbeth speak in tetrameter, with four “feet” per line – four sets of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables – rather than Shakespeare’s typical five-feeted iambic pentameter. Pro-witch proponents argue that this is proof that Willy Shakes cribbed real-life spells and didn’t write the sorcerous instructions himself.

Naturally (or, y’know, un-naturally) this didn’t sit well with all the practicing witches from whom he’d pilfered – witches who were, again, actively trying not to be murdered by the sitting English king, and who would have loved nothing more than to not have been brought literally center stage. In retaliation, they cursed the play forevermore – starting with two of Shakespeare’s original cast being accidentally murdered onstage.

PBS

Macbeth productions rarely need to budget for blood.

Of course, alternately, if you’re boring and are fine with the world also being boring, it’s all a bunch of nonsense and superstitious hooey. There are no actual records of that first performance, after all, no records of deaths. The Weird Sisters’ weird incantations could have been made up wholesale or taken from Elizabethan-era herbalists and alchemists and purposely made to sound off-the-beat for the sake of theater. Shakespeare was pretty good at stuff like that, I hear. Even the curse itself, all the mishaps over the years, can be attributed to basic statistics, the universal popularity of Macbeth, and Charlton Heston pissing off the wrong props person.

You’re obviously free to believe whatever you want – but maybe don’t read this article out loud inside of a theater, just in case. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.

Top Image: PBS

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